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Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941

Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941

By Ljiljana Blagojevic

MIT Press (2003), 300 pp.

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

Architecture has long commanded public attention in the Balkans. Swedish diplomats lament the low-quality granite used not long ago to create public thoroughfares in Kosovo €“ itself an experiment in building €“ and organized debates are sparked by talk of an enormous Alexander the Great statue in Skopje.

Given the continuing controversy that characterizes much of the dialogue around architecture in the Balkans today, it is a bit refreshing to take a moment out and appreciate the achievements of an earlier time, the controversies surrounding which have long subsided.

As such, readers may turn to Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941, an attractively designed tome that’ss a mix between textbook and coffee-table set piece. From the minimalist font (Gotham) cloaking taut prose to the exacting sketches of once-experimental constructions, the book reflects the aesthetic of the early 20th-century structures pictured in the book, many of which have not survived or are in disrepair.

By any standard, this is a remarkable book. Written by Serbian architect and Belgrade University lecturer Ljiljana Blagojevic, Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941 is much more than a treatise on old buildings and their structural integrity. Indeed, it has just as much to do with defining the intellectual integrity of those who envisioned, designed and agitated for the building of livable urban artworks which, by virtue of their very existence, reflected specific currents in philosophical thought.

Whether or not one likes the architecture itself, in this era of cheap (though expensive) nationalist kitsch and the apparently unstoppable reflective blue glass that forms the outer shield of so many Balkan urban buildings today, one has to admire the Serbian modernists for at least trying to be guided by loftier thoughts.

To be sure, this is a book that is on the must-read list for students of architecture and Balkan urbanists, though for this reason it will appeal to anyone intrigued by the history of thought and social movements in the modern Balkans. And it makes for an attractive and useful conversation-starter if spread discreetly across one’ss coffee table when, say, trying to impress a first-time date.

The author tells the story of Belgrade Modernist architecture in five carefully composed chapters, beginning with the context of the outside (mainly, French) condescension of local architecture in the period of the Balkan Wars through to the dwindling of Modernism following the ascendancy of Tito and his Communist ethos.

Along the way, Blagojevic documents the works and tells the fascinating personal stories of the major architects, men such as Nikola Dobrovic, Dragisa Brasovan and Milan Zlokovic. She also follows the course of the intellectual movements (such as Zenitism) which captivated such figures and inspired them to rebel against their confines, thus telling an intimate story that has never been told, using images that have never been seen outside of Serbia (in some cases, not at all).

Along with the numerous illustrations, there are extensive tables with population and construction statistics, indicating the author’ss multi-dimensional approach to considering architecture in light of the broader socio-economic development of the Serbian capital. Her text is thus useful to a wider range of social scientists.

In conclusion, this book is a real pleasure to read, or just admire. It is wittier than might be expected, and especially fascinating when quoting the architects and foreigners alike; their observations and interpretations of life in the Balkans, as seen through a common focus on aesthetics, add to the greater historical record and attest to the final era in which humans would prize qualitative, rather than quantitative values highest of all. That said, though Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941 is not an inexpensive book, it is one to have and to hold.

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Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro

Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro

By Elizabeth Roberts

Cornell University Press (2007), 521 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Although released just in 2007, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro comes from a much older school of scholarship. With this much needed work, former diplomat Elizabeth Roberts has produced the newest and best introduction to the full history of a storied and sometimes inscrutable land the identity of which was formed equally by its forbidding mountains and balmy Adriatic coast- still the features most representative of Montenegro today and most enticing to its increasing number of foreign visitors.

While in essence a political history in the most conventional sense, Roberts’s study takes account of not only English-language secondary sources but also numerous secondary sources from Serb and Montenegrin historians, plus a few first-hand 19th and early 20th-century annals (the British Foreign Office, Carnegie Commission findings and so on).

Frequently throughout the proceedings, quotes are woven in from some of the many eminent personalities and writers to have crossed Montenegro and chronicled it in past decades, livening up the narrative and adding an occasional touch of humor. The selection of historic color photographs, illustrating everything from famous Montenegrins, medieval manuscripts, engravings and social conditions provides a welcome addition.

Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro follows a fairly straightforward course, narrating the history of the country from pre-Slavic times through to the medieval princes of Duklja and Zeta, the Turkish occupation and resistance to it, and finally Montenegro’s fate during the Balkan Wars, the two Yugoslavias and its recent experience as an independent republic. The whole trajectory of this historical experience is explained in a condensed form in the long introduction (Montenegrin Identity in Time and Space), which is helpful in providing context for readers, who could run the risk of becoming lost in a book of over 500 pages.

As could be expected, the temporal coverage of the book is weighted towards the more contemporary history of Montenegro, with roughly half of the text dealing with prehistory through the 19th century, and the latter half concerned with the period from 1880 to the present. Given the turbulent events of the 20th century and Montenegro’s continuing ability to make history via its independence referendum in 2006, there is indeed plenty to cover, though it is also clear that the range of sources upon which the author draws is at its richest and most diverse regarding Montenegro’s modern history. So to some extent, the exposition is a reflection of the degree of attention given in the previous historiography.

Another important factor, however, is the simple truth that for the vast majority of its history, Montenegro was a humble place indeed. Rocky, desolate and poor, it underwent frequent declines in population matching the general wax and wane of national fortunes. Even in the early 20th century, foreign diplomats expressed their derision at the backwater nature of the place and trappings of greatness at odds with the stated stature of the head of state (the famous King Nikola).

Indeed, it is somewhat astonishing that a country numbering no more than 20,000 souls at various points could maintain its social and cultural cohesion over the centuries and become a modern state (with a population of over 600,000 at present).

Of course, it would not be possible to present Montenegrin history in isolation. The general narrative thus unfolds in the context of Montenegro’s relations with Byzantium in the east and Venice in the west, with the neighboring Serbs and Albanians, and with more distant powers such as Austro-Hungary and Russia.

All in all, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro is the single best introduction to Montenegro’s rich history available in English today. Although it can be slow going in parts and would benefit from further editing, this book does an admirable job in giving order to a chronically unruly, complex subject of research.

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Macedonian: A Course for Beginning and Intermediate Students

Macedonian: A Course for Beginning and Intermediate Students

By Christina E. Kramer

University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd edition (2003), 530 pp., some illustrations

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

The year 2008 was declared the ‘Year of the Macedonian language’ by the government in Skopje, a proclamation that has been echoed by the far-flung Macedonian diaspora in different ways. That said, it seemed quite appropriate to devote a short review to ‘the big red book,’ as it’s become known to foreign students of the language- Christina Kramer’s authoritative guide to this little-studied language.

This updated edition of the first comprehensive textbook for those wishing to learn Macedonian is a lucid, easy-to-use paperback book, dotted with photos of traditional life, frescoes and churches, and other enticing representative bits. The back of the book has a dual glossary of useful words and an answer key to some of the exercises presented in the book’s 16 chapters.

One of the challenges in writing any language textbook for beginners is to not get bogged down in inscrutable linguistic explanations which may mystify the layman. The author succeeds in this, though perhaps presupposes too little linguistic awareness on the part of the reader (as with the definition of the common noun, p. 14, which one would hope most people have already understood, having come this far in life). As grammatical structures become more complex throughout the book, of course, some of this background and explanation is good to have, though cumulatively it does add perhaps unnecessarily to the book’s formidable weight.

The first section of the textbook provides a lucid explanation of the Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet, helping students to sound out the letters, and write them in upper-case and cursive forms. Since the Cyrillic alphabet is the official one and widely used in Macedonia this is certainly important. Following this, subject pronouns and present-tense verbs are tackled, allowing the student to formulate simple sentences.

This little-at-a-time approach is of course utilized by many writers of language textbooks, structured with an eye to conversational practice and practical usage rather than a more linguistic design wherein the full forms of the various linguistic categories are laid out in order.

The only problem with this choice of structure is that if one has already some knowledge of the language, but with holes here and there, it becomes necessary to flip backwards and forwards in the book rather than soldier on from page 1 to the end. Thus while the book is geared towards beginners and intermediate students, it is most recommended for the former, for whom the layout is ideal and can be followed sequentially.

After orthography, pronouns and present-tense verbs, the book goes on to chart the perilous waters of nouns, in all their trans-gendered splendor. Affirmative and negative questions follow, and the chapter rounds out, as do the following ones, with a good list of relevant vocabulary words.

The textbook progresses thereafter to discuss steadily more complex grammatical forms in the following chapters, with each chapter focusing on a specific theme (for example, ‘health,’ ‘geography of Macedonia’), which in turn beget their own relevant vocabulary words. The order of presentation is odd in some cases (it seems the months of the year could have been covered earlier than chapter 9, for example), though this is the nature of sequential structure.

All in all, Macedonian: A Course for Beginning and Intermediate Students is a highly useful guide to the easiest of the Slavic languages. Learning Macedonian provides a good access point for learning Bulgarian, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, Slovenian and Russian. The book is a must for anyone wishing to approach the language comprehensively. Mastering the content contained within will provide a more than adequate knowledge for everyday communications and basic life in Macedonia.

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Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

By Patrick Leigh Fermor

John Murray, London (2004) 320 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

2008 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, considered one of the most important travelogues of the 20th century by many critics. Although the book is now often described as a ‘companion text’ to the author’s later account of travels in Northern Greece, Roumeli (1966), the author reveals that he originally meant it to be ‘a single chapter among many’ that would cumulatively encompass his long travels and experience throughout Greek lands.

However, the fact that the southernmost region of the Peloponnese had been so often ignored by modern writers inspired the author to pen something more substantial about this wild place, ‘the remote and barren but astonishing region of the Mani’ (p. xi).

Nevertheless, to understand the book it is important to keep the author’s original, encyclopedic and pan-Hellenic impetus in mind, as it helps explain the structure of the work and the authorial decision-making process, in which Fermor attempted to solve a problem that he described as ‘one of exclusion.’

Born in 1915, Patrick Leigh Fermor is one of the oldest living writers in the world. He is also perhaps a bit of a throwback; he revealed to the Guardian in 2007 that he had only just started using a typewriter, having previously written out all of his works in painstaking longhand.

Fermor is also possibly the last living Modernist, at least among the last for who the canon, as traditionally understood in Western academia, is still to be respected. Ironically, he discovered the greats of Latin and Greek literature through rebelling against his schooling; too hard to keep disciplined, he set off at the age of 18 for a saunter across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, writing about it much later in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Fermor’s many fans hope that the boy will finally reach Constantinople in a projected third and final volume.

Fermor’s life become more remarkable when, after having traveled for several years in Greece, he was chosen by the British government to organize a resistance movement in the mountains of Crete against the German occupation forces during World War II. Here he developed a deep admiration for the fiery Cretans, and achieved a splendid success when he helped capture the German general Karl Kreipe, smuggling him through 14 Nazi checkpoints in Heraklio before secretly deporting him by sea to Egypt.

Through these experiences, and his scholarly reading, Patrick Leigh Fermor fell in love with Greece, the Greeks and, as Mani and other works show, Hellenism itself. This is certainly understandable, given both his personal experience and the influential trends in British historiography of the mid-20th century on Greece, particularly regarding the Byzantine heritage. Still, it is not likely that this book could be written today, at least not without controversy, due to the prevailing historiography of modern ‘multiculturalism.’ However, though Mani at certain moments could be taken as offensive to Turks, the French, Italians and other descendents of Latin knights, Albanians and all manner of Slavs, it is also clear that there is a good-natured gentleness behind the author’s opinionated worldviews.

There are two problems with discussing a book such as Mani. The first is due to the stature of the author. The trend today is to abandon criticizing the works of the greats in their own right, almost as a sign of timid respect, and also because all critical structures have been broken down, all clear vantage points obscured for a couple of generations now. Relativism has saved us from having to wince over pronouncing harsh words, though the cult of personality seems fair game; and so the greats are left to be criticized, if not for their work than for their character flaws, political mis-allegiances, addictions and so on. And this is safe ground because it does not leave the critic exposed to charges of intellectual insolence or vanity; rather it encourages revelations of dark failings and occasionally redemption, demoting review to the vagaries of popular culture in an age of infotainment- call it the ‘VH1 model.’

Yet this is not the world Fermor recognized or inhabited. It is impossibly wonderful to imagine his horror when he relates hearing a ‘wireless set’ (a simple radio, not some computer contraption) violate the stillness of the placid air in a 1950’s Greek seaside village. Readers today can thank him for having had the foresight to record an ephemeral moment the imminent disappearance of which he was all too aware: as Fermor notes in the preface, ‘between the butt of a Coca-Cola bottle and the Iron Curtain, much that is precious and venerable, many living mementos of Greece’s past, are being hammered to powder’ (p. xi).

It is in this respect that Mani is most valuable as a travelogue, though as a work of literature it is mostly distinguished by the author’s facility with language, which is so immediate and so effusive that it often overshadows or confuses, as if by a dazzling light, what is actually being discussed. At any rate the individuals undergoing the actual documented journey through the Mani (the author and is nearly invisible wife, Joan) are less the book’s ‘characters’ than are the manifold concepts which Fermor’s lengthy (and planned) digressions flesh out, among them the feuding of the Maniots, their family lineages and castles, the lurking creatures of Greece, both mythical and real, the names and characteristics of different winds, the subtleties of religious icons, cats and dogs and so on.

Indeed, the narrative, such that there is, seems to exist merely as entry and exit points into this parallel universe of the tangential, in which Fermor’s erudition is showcased in a practically encyclopedic way. It is not as if the reader were not warned, however; in the preface, the author states that he will allow himself ‘the luxury of long digressions, and, by attempting to involve the reader in them, aspire to sharing with him a far wider area of Greek lands, both in space and time, than the brisker chronicle of a precise itinerary would have allowed’ (p. x).

However, given both the frequently mentioned stock of intrigue and adventure in Fermor’s Greek experience, and the Mani’s historic propensity for perpetuating random violence and surprises of its own, the reader may feel disappointed that most of the adventure referred to had already accumulated the distancing dust of centuries by the time the author had come upon it. Could there not have been a middle way?

Perhaps the answer lies in thinking about what came before Mani, when travel writing as we know it today was still relatively in its infancy. Thanks largely to the likes of writers like Fermor, ‘the brisker chronicle of a precise itinerary’ has long been superceded. It is worth remembering that in the 1950’s he was treading virtually unknown territory, in terms of both genre (travel writing as a more complex narrative form than it had been until then) and subject (little indeed had been written about the Mani as a region before).

The second excess (the desired inclusion of a ‘far wider area of Greek lands’) is more vexing but also has its own context. Throughout much of the 20th century, British historiography of the Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman worlds tended, like other Western European historiography, to both emphasize the perceived continuity of Greek history throughout the ages and to accentuate the negative and corrosive influences of both the West (the Crusades, the Catholic Church, the Venetians) and the Turks on interrupting this continuity. (In this emphasis on continuity and assured values, Greece was just one of several exemplars, albeit an important one, abused to animate the philosophy that spawned two world wars). In one of the more innocuous cases, the abovementioned historiography, the cumulative result was the creation of a Greek race that had never really existed, and whose achievements were as exaggerated as was their suffering.

This is mentioned to provide a historical context for the book at hand. Mid-twentieth-century historiography unsurprisingly generated considerable pathos and sympathy for the Greek victims (victims, verily, of both East and West!) but also tended to downplay the contributions of other nations to Greek-associated successes, and to omit examples of Greek cruelty and avarice against their less privileged neighbors, especially during Ottoman times, both extremes of which still remain anathema to the official dogma of Hellenism.

Nevertheless, when Fermor was writing of the Southern Peloponnese, the situation looked somewhat different. When Mani was published, it had been less than a decade since the end of the Greek Civil War and defeat of Communism (the ironic upshot of this was that Greece would become the most Communistic of non-Communist countries, but that is another subject). And if any foreigner had the right to speak about the glories of Hellenism and its objective worth, it would be Fermor, who literally risked his life to free the Greeks from Nazi Germany.

One wonder whether he would still find Hellenism worth fighting for, now in 2008, when ‘much that is precious and venerable’ about Greek culture and its living relation with the past has indeed vanished, as the author once feared. While Hellenism itself remains robust, it has become a lazy man’s religion, expressed by unthinking xenophobia, and a foreign policy that involves Greece bullying smaller countries to redirect frustrations, not being able to do the same to larger ones.

Yet beyond the daily heavings of televised politicians and their media parrots, the communist drivel of striking students, the dictatorial proclamations of taxi drivers and cursing of pagan-wielding bishops, few today, Greek or non-Greek, would understand or have cognizance of half the allusions, words and concepts Fermor methodically explicates. It is not simply Greece that has been lost, even more so the cultural reference points and accepted norms that long fostered an engagement with it in the Modernist sense.

This long and apparently unrelated digression was necessitated by the author’s decision to confront all of the Greek world incidentally in one book ostensibly about a small and compact region of that world. From the title at least, Mani can be construed as somewhat false advertising. But aside from these topics, on a purely literary note, there is the issue of language. Readers will either be appreciative, confused, bedazzled or even sickened (as when you eat too many sweets) by Fermor’s remarkable gift with linguistic expression. This refers to his ability to sustain and interrupt cadences, to wed the unlikeliest of adjectives with nouns, and to create vast, elaborate images – after all, how many writers describe a conversation in Greek as akin to witnessing geometrical objects ‘flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire’ (pp. 299-300)?

Sometimes the word associations or mental (a)symmetries are so complex as to distract completely from the subject matter. There are moments, however, when the juxtaposition of ekphrasis with a certain historic imagination merge to create a breathtakingly interwoven image. Thus, when describing various wild animals of Greece, a section which involves a lovingly written discourse on dolphins, the author states:

‘a turtle I have seen only once, from the deck of a ship, floating languidly and then sculling steeply down into the blue-green depths between Bari and Corfu where the filioque drops out of the Creed. I have once or twice seen the top half of their shells sliced from their base and, turned upside down, transformed into a cradle. One had a fisherman’s daughter asleep in it and very comfortable and decorative it looked (pp. 269-270).’

Perhaps the most important bits of Fermor’s accounts are not his linguistic demonstrations, however, but rather the captured images of singular moments, the expressions, in capsule form, of what was fleeting and about to disappear, the expressions of spirit that make the work worth doing. Possibly the most magical is the early account (p. 16) of his hiking party’s stumbling upon ‘two little Byzantines,’ sisters looking after their family’s goats, up in the almost uninhabited mountain reaches of the Maniot crags, ‘two barefoot, raggedly dressed and ikon-faced little girls of ten and twelve, both of them extremely beautiful.’

And there are the moments of humor, such as the enormous and dozing Greek boatsman roused to life by a cicada buzzing on his face, or the vignette about a Sphakian patriarch banished to an islet to cure his drunkenness, only to be joined by a wandering barrel of wine from someone else’s shipwreck (p. 284).

Nevertheless, reading these descriptions and the book’s major digressions alike only has full kaleidoscopic effect for those lacking the contextual knowledge assumed by the author (as well, it might be added, as to where the uncharted ideological hazards lie). Mani thus makes a fine introduction to ancient Greece and Byzantium, Hellenism and 20th-century Greece- and reads even better the less one knows about these subjects.

This is far from a criticism of the work and its merits, just an acknowledgment that time has passed. And for recording the time that he witnessed in the most inaccessible and wildest region of Greece, all should be grateful to the inimitable Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia

A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia

By Ruth S. Farnam, over 30 B/W photos

Bobbs-Merrill Co. (1918), 229 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

This remarkable first-hand account of the First World War in the Balkans, available infrequently and only in its original 1918 printing, is the passionately told work of an American woman who, moved by the great suffering of the Serbian people at the hands of German and Austrian invaders in World War I, volunteered to assist with medical work, humanitarian fund-raising and, by the end of the book, briefly became an honorary soldier in the Serbian army as it was on the verge of breaking the Bulgarian lines on the River Crna in Macedonia in October of 1916.

A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia is not a work of immense historical significance, nor will it win awards stylistically. The author’s evident subjectivity (the Germans are presented as the “blonde beast,’ the Bulgarians derisively as “Mongols,’ etc.) might also be considered to detract from its value for some, though it should be said that the simple sincerity of the author’s voice does come through, as do her strongly held beliefs, loud and clear. For what it’s worth, however, this book does provide some unique insights into the war and life in the Balkans at the time, along with some vignettes about political figures of note.

History records little of Ruth Farnham, an American born in 1873. She was married to another American, and (as a photo indicates) possessed a rather sumptuous residence in England. She must have been a woman of extraordinary toughness. The old “war is hell” ethos prevails throughout A Nation at Bay, from the vivid descriptions of horribly wounded and tortured Serbian soldiers in Belgrade to the depiction, in the penultimate chapter, of actual front-lines fighting in Macedonia. Far from shrinking from the action, the author wins the affections of the Serbian soldiers by her zeal for the cause and for her bravery in very dangerous situations. That she seldom complained, and protested when anyone wanted to put her needs before those of the rank and file, also apparently endeared Farnham to her unlikely comrades in arms.

An interesting fact about the book is that it was penned while the war was still going on, in 1918. At the time the author had returned to America from the front, via the lengthy and difficult (between the bureaucracy and the furtive German submarines) route from Greece through Italy to France and England, and was making speeches and raising funds for providing medical and other humanitarian supplies for Serbian civilians and soldiers. As such, her book might be considered a classic piece of for-the-moment war propaganda; however, it is much more than that, preserving over the long decades observations and anecdotes of a time that no longer seems recognizable to us.

Along with the more general descriptions of the Serbian countryside, village life and zadruga household system common at the time, Farnam provides interesting specific images, such as descriptions of Senegalese conscripts marching in the French army, and grand old Salonica, swarming with the allied war effort. Amusing anecdotes of dealing with surly Italian border police, and unfailingly polite British officials, are retold. The author’s personal interactions with famous individuals such as the gallant Prince Alexander of Serbia and “that splendid patriot,” Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, liven up the book, and provide an element of historicity to it.

There are more dramatic contentions, such as the claims that the Bulgarians and Germans were selling hundreds of Serbian girls into the harems of Constantinople, or that Bulgarians were injecting Serbian civilians with “inoculations” composed of diseases, though these are harder to verify. The obviously partisan author does seem to have a way of getting swept up in things, though this should not detract from the veracity of her specific personal experience as recounted. And while her brief recounting of the Serbian army’s desperate flight across the mountains of Albania to be evacuated by boat to Corfu in the winter of 1915-16 is positively elegiac, this and other accounts of strength amidst great hardship do give the book, the simplicity and naivete of style considered as well, an oddly moving feel.

In the end, considering the current situation, what is perhaps most unusual about the story Ruth Farnam tells in A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia is the fact that Americans and Serbs were fighting on the same side. This fact, and the significance of it, are constantly cited throughout the book. One suspects that was this stout, uncompromising author to be resurrected today, certain American officials would be in for more than a good sound tanning.

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Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204

Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204

by Paul Stephenson

Cambridge University Press (2000), 352 pp., 22 maps and tables

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

This is one of the most important contemporary books for the history of the Byzantine Balkans. It creates a thoroughly new picture of the social, economic and political life of the time and, for good measure, it comes beautifully set within a colorful cover taken from a medieval Byzantine manuscript. For readers interested in this specific aspect of the Byzantine world, it is definitely “the one to own.’

Conducted during the 1990s, those frenzied years of nationalism in the Balkans, Stephenson’s research is among other things, an antidote to that nationalism. Indeed, he rejects the notion of Balkan natives as having been engaged in a chronic struggle to overthrow the “Byzantine yoke.’ In actual fact, he notes,

“the peoples of the northern Balkan lands seem to have worn their political allegiances lightly. This is not to say that they did not feel intense personal loyalty to local or regional rulers: it is clear they did. However, there is no indication that this was translated into a higher loyalty, and certainly not to a sense of belonging to any abstract entity like a “nation.’ “Sources do not support the notion [that] an ethnic awareness, still less a national consciousness, motivated rebellions” (p. 320).

In its synoptic coverage, careful attention to detail, and use of the full range of textual and tangible source materials, this book bears the signs of an influence that to most readers would remain invisible- that is, the scholarly influence of Jonathan Shepard, expert in Byzantine-Russian history, and occasionally adventurous Oxford don James Howard-Johnston, whose relatively infrequent publishing, students know well, owes entirely to that time-honored unsatisfied desire for perfection of old-school scholars. For years, fans of this eminent historian have had to rely on the “trickle-down’ method of attaining his insights vicariously, through the work of those influenced by him. This fact makes Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 even more significant.

Method and Limiting Factors

What makes Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 truly innovative, and a good example of modern Byzantine research methodology, is the author’s use of coin and seal finds to enhance a narrative as formerly created from the historiographical record. At the same time, Stephenson also criticizes and corrects various interpretations in the text, as well as dealing with provenance issues and the trustworthiness of the source. It is this critical eye that distinguishes Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 from other works on the topic.

The author also refers to limiting factors that the general reader might not have considered, such as the significance of geography in the shaping of political states and alliances. For the Byzantines, “the Haemus [Stara Planina in Bulgaria] were regarded as the only secure and defensible barrier” from certain nomad incursions (p. 110). And so, as would remain the case in later Ottoman centuries, whichever group was guarding the mountain passes that separated different contiguous areas could receive special treatment; as mountain-dwellers tended to be pastoralists, Vlach shepherds often played this role. However, the guardians of the pass could just as easily betray their ostensible patron, as the Byzantines learned the hard way in Bulgaria, when the barbarian Cumans were escorted through the passes to Adrianople (p. 109).

Another example of the value Byzantine rulers placed on geography, and those who understood it, is culled from the Alexiad of Anna Comnena, daughter of Emperor Alexios I Comnenos. Recounting her father’s decision to engage in evasive action rather than pitched battle with the Normans, she writes:

“[Alexios] summoned one of the old men from Larissa and questioned him on the topography of the place. Turning his eyes in different directions and at the same time pointing with his finger, he carefully inquired where the land was broken in ravines, where dense thickets lay close to such places. The reason why he asked the Larissean such questions was of course that he wished to lay an ambush there and so defeat the Latins by guile, for he had given up any idea of an open hand-to-hand conflict; after many clashes of this kind — and as many defeats — he had acquired experience of Frankish tactics in battle.” (p. 172)

The study of sigillography (lead seals) is also a relatively modern innovation which the author exploits in Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204. Such seals, often stamped with the sender’s name and title, were affixed to important documents when sent; the double purpose of this practice was to indicate the rank and prestige of the sender and, of course, to preserve the secrecy of the contents. Where archeologists have discovered large groups of seals in one place, it is often found, that that place would have been the site of an imperial archive or bureaucratic office. The discovery of large numbers of seals in Bulgaria, for example, has provided insights that have dramatically revised the history of that country in Byzantine times (p. 55-61).

Stephenson makes full use of these finds, as well as the growing science of Byzantine numismatics, to make his case. The interpretation of coin hoards differs from seal hoards, however, owing to their inherent fiscal value: “the most likely reason for concealment is generally assumed to be the desire for security, and this desire is manifested most frequently at times of unrest. Thus a series of contemporary hoards can often be associated with a rebellion or invasion” (p. 16).An example of the author’s use of numismatics is the discussion of what the discovery of large numbers of low-level bronze coins on the Danube says about the economic life of the time in that region (p. 105).

Structure and Content

Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 is divided into nine chapters, which cover in turn the rise of the medieval Bulgarian empire, the devastating impact of Cuman and Pecheneg nomads from the north, the rise of the Serbian state and Byzantium’s interactions with trouble-making Latins from the West, the Normans and other crusaders. Allies that became too powerful for their own good, and who exploited the perfidious politics of local rulers, are treated objectively in consideration of their own interests. Indeed, Stephenson generally succeeds in the careful balancing act of not letting his main focus get away from him while also citing the main factors influencing foreign interactions with Byzantium, from both the Catholic West and the Muslim east of the Arabs and Turks.

Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 contains much more than can be described in a simple review. Stephenson’s work is one that should ideally be read, and then re-read. The details — for at bottom this is a narrative of events, battles and political succession — come thick and fast, and the author frequently finds himself challenging the veracity of Byzantine sources that had been traditionally taken at face value. While the vast amount of references to leaders and generals whom history has largely forgotten may occasionally bewilder the general reader, the writing is straightforward and not daunting; the book repays a careful study.

A New Picture

That no Byzantine maps still survive is just one of the many extremely interesting details to emerge from Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 (p. 3). Indeed, any maps retrospectively placed on the region, in terms of territorial “possession’ by larger state entities are inherently deceptive; in actual fact, tracts of territory large and small, usually marked by a handful of strategic highlands or water sources, passed hands frequently between the empire, rebels, local chieftains and foreign invaders such as the Pechenegs or the Normans.

Something else vitally important to remember, which the book discusses fully, is the fact that the composition of the armies involved was never ethnically or politically “pure.’ The actors ranged from hapless locals conscripted into the fight to hardened mercenaries specifically selected from distant lands. The emperor’s guard might have been made up of Rus Vikings, his army, composed of Greeks, Turkish mercenaries and Western adventurers. The whole structure might change during the next campaign. The same went for any of the other combatants who grew sufficiently powerful to be able to pay men for their military service.

And so what we come away with is a picture of an extraordinarily fluid region, in which allegiances were bound to be transient, and in which local power relationships were based on the recognition that any alliance was likely to be temporary, and that yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s best friend. There is a name for this kind of politics, which has somehow stood the test of time: Balkan.

What Stephenson’s book does is, tacitly though specifically, to show how a convergence of physical factors, especially strategic geography, transit routes and natural resources, rather than (as has sometimes been argued) a malignant and perfidious mindset allegedly endemic to the region and its inhabitants, conditioned diplomatic decision-making and political structures.

If nationalism did not account for the frequent changes in allegiance away from the Byzantines, it was just because developments, locally and in the West, afforded newer and shinier options. “The emergence of powerful polities in the West whose rulers became alternative patrons and suzerains for the rulers of various groups, regions and cities,” the author notes (p 321). The Normans of Sicily, the rising maritime power of Venice, and the kingdom of Hungary were the most powerful such options.

In conclusion, with Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204, we are treated to one of the best discussions out there of how, remarkably, a unique and common culture was molded and managed to survive during a period of great change in the Balkans, one that remains relatively unexplored. Nevertheless, under critical examination, remarkable signs of continuity emerge that ultimately help us to understand how the modern Balkans came into existence.

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Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (2)

Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad

By John R. Schindler

Zenith Press (2007), 368 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Note: Owing to length, the following review is being published in two parts.

Part one appeared on March 22, 2008. Part two (March 29, 2008) appears below.

Deception and Deceit: The Media and the War

The second and third chapters of Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad are slightly tangential but still essential for understanding the greater context of the Bosnian conflict. Indeed, they are required reading for not only those interested in the Islamic dimension of the war, but of the entire manner in which the conflict was manipulated and distorted by the Western press, which by and large soon fell in love with the Muslim cause of the SDA, eight of whose core members were former Young Muslims, and whose vision for Bosnia was anything but multicultural.

The author’s main contention here may be controversial to some but, as he goes on to prove, is irrefutable: “the Bosnian tragedy was eminently avoidable, and was nearly dodged on several occasions. It was the irresponsible actions of politicians in 1991 and 1992, and none more than Alija Izetbegovic, that brought on a catastrophe” (p. 56).

The Western media’s championing of the Muslim cause owed to savvy PR work from the Muslim government, both on the ground and abroad. Muhamed Sacirbey, the charismatic, English-speaking ambassador at the UN, pushed the SDA line in America (few mentioned that he was the son of Nedzib Sacirbegovic, a close ally of Izetbegovic’s who had shared the latter’s Pan-Islamist values since their time together in the Young Muslims). Formidable beltway lobbyists were called in to disseminate pro-Muslim propaganda. In Sarajevo itself, the SDA government was pumping a steady stream of disinformation to journalists more interested in tantalizing scoops than accuracy, leaving out unpleasant details such as mujahedin atrocities against Croat and Serb civilians in Bosnia.

The result, as Schindler summarizes, was that “the Bosnian war as witnessed in the West was but a small corner of a much wider conflict, where Muslims were easily portrayed as helpless victims. What happened in the rest of Bosnia — or even behind the scenes in Sarajevo — was simply not news” (p. 81). And, in the summer of 1992, when various sensationalistic and dubiously sourced stories alleging the existence of Serbian “concentration camps” began appearing, the Bosnian Muslim government “jumped on the bandwagon” of a reckless runaway media. “Although Sarajevo had made no claims of mass killings before these accounts appeared in the international press, the SDA made them constantly once the story had been advanced” (p. 84).

Emulating Foreign Friends

Where Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad starts to become really very good, however, is with the fourth chapter (“With Koran and Kalashikov”), which illuminates the depth of the Bosnian government’s pro-jihad feelings, and its success in winning the sympathies — and finances — of Muslims elsewhere. It also discusses in detail the arrival of foreign mujahedin and the Islamist NGOs that would become their logistical and financial support base. “Throughout the war, the Iranians and Saudis waged a covert struggle for greater influence in Sarajevo,” recalls Schindler, “a rivalry that the SDA understood and exploited to maximum effect” (p. 132). Throughout the book, he painstakingly fills in all the details about the fruitful relations between these powers and the SDA of Alija Izetbegovic.

Most intriguingly, the author uncovers the murky role of Iranian state security (the VEVAK intelligence service and the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guard) in training the Bosnian Army- while simultaneously working for Iranian interests against the West. Alija Izetbegovic’s great respect for Iran extended beyond ideology, argues Schindler. It affected the specific structure and operating procedure of his party’s intelligence services, and Iranian intelligence officials and military personnel flocked to the Islamist cause of the Bosnian president. Most significantly, the Iranians taught the Bosnians in the secrets of their “black arts,” which included targeted assassinations — long a hallmark of Iranian operations abroad — and terrorist attacks. This dramatically transformed the effectiveness of the Izetbegovic government’s ability to intimidate dissident Muslims and to terrorize Christians.

The following chapter, “MOS and Mujahedin,” takes a closer look at the arrival of the mujahedin and the specific individuals, all closely linked with Izetbegovic, who helped import and fund them. It discusses the specific mujahedin units created, how they were used, and the sorts of atrocities they committed in Bosnia. It also discusses the development and inner workings of one of the most important, but least investigated organizations in wartime Bosnia: the Muslim Intelligence Service (Muslimanska obavestajna sluzba, MOS), “the SDA group operating behind the scenes that wielded much of the real power in Sarajevo” (p. 158).

Along with its services in facilitating the arrival of foreign jihadis, the MOS also provided a mechanism by which a handful of hardcore Islamists could take over the “broad tent” of the larger SDA membership. The author finally brings up the rarely mentioned phenomenon of the party’s private assassination unit, the Larks, many of whose members were not even Muslims, but exceedingly talented Serb and Croat hired guns. Along with political enemies, they were used as snipers to kill innocent civilians as part of the SDA’s terror war against Sarajevo’s Serb minority- another part of the conflict seldom reported by the pro-Muslim media.

Bloody Ends and Endings

The intriguing sixth chapter of Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad, “Not so Secret Secrets,” dissects the role of the Clinton administration in allowing the Bosnian Muslims to be armed and manned by the Islamic internationale. Coming from a former NSA officer, this chapter is especially interesting and important, exposing as it does the wide divide between the intelligence community and the administration. While the former was urging caution, warning about the very real danger of Islamic terrorism spreading to the West via Islamist support for Bosnia, the administration and its diplomats had other plans. According to Schindler, CIA warnings about the danger of Iranian infiltration “proved as accurate as they were unheeded” (p. 185). The chapter also discusses the “astonishingly corrupt” Croatian leaders who made a killing off of being an arms transit zone into Bosnia- even though the regime they were supplying was murdering Bosnian Croats.

The seventh and eighth chapters carry on through the end of the war in 1995, revealing the degree to which “blowback” — in the form of terrorist attacks and plots around Europe — immediately began occurring following the SDA’s invitation of the mujahedin into Bosnia. Connections between Bosnia and events abroad stretched from Poland and Chechnya to Egypt, Jordan and Algeria. In Europe, the Algerian GIA’s hijacking of an Air France plane on Christmas Eve of 1994, and several bloody bombings in France the following summer, were aided directly by the Bosnian jihad: “GIA was using veterans of the Bosnian jihad to carry out the attacks.” Further, by 1995, “machine guns, grenades and other heavy weapons were appearing on the streets of Paris and Brussels, straight from Bosnian Army stocks, thanks to the mujahedin” (p. 209). Another Bosnia-linked plot to attack the G-7 summit was thwarted by a spectacularly explosive police action in December of that year.

In these chapters, the extent of the corruption of SDA insiders, such as the arms profiteering of Hasan Cengic (whose father Halid had been a longtime ally of Izetbegovic’s) and the mysterious disappearance of millions in aid dollars for Muslims, is laid bare. The party’s chokehold on society is also discussed, leading to the conclusion that as under previous Communist rule, “party membership and connections were necessary to obtain good jobs and apartments” (p. 196). Most disturbing, however, is the author’s allegations against the party, and specifically Alija Izetbegovic, in the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995. Coolly ignoring the usual hysteria that plagues most treatments of this event, Schindler actually finds that:

“any detailed examination of Srebrenica rapidly uncovers facts that are incompatible with the standard version of events, resulting in a portrayal that is disturbing and deeply critical of all parties involved- the real story of Srebrenica is a tale of cynicism astonishing even by Bosnian standards” (p. 227).

As the official history claims, the Bosnian Serb forces of Ratko Mladic overran the UN-guarded “safe zone” of Srebrenica, resulting in the deaths of over 7,000 Muslims. Beyond that, things become dicey. Schindler points out that the Izetbegovic government had been impudently using this safe zone to stage attacks on Serbs in the neighboring villages for three years, despite Serbian protests; in all, over 3,000 Serbs, including 1,300 civilians were massacred by Muslims in Srebrenica municipality, “in many cases butchered, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, or decapitated” (p. 228). The main figure often ultimately responsible was the Bosnian Army’s local commander, the exceptionally brutal Naser Oric, who used Muslims as human shields against the Serbs, and who eliminated enemies real or perceived, even within his own units. Oric delighted in showing Western journalists his home-made videos depicting the beheadings of Serb prisoners (p. 229).

However, even as talk of a Serb offensive was growing in early 2005, Sarajevo’s local strongman was inexplicably recalled, leaving Srebrenica-area Muslims without effective leadership: “in April, Oric and his senior staff left the town under cover of darkness, headed for Tuzla, ostensibly to take a command training course. He never returned” (p. 230). After Mladic’s attack began, on July 6, local Muslim leaders begged Sarajevo for assistance. None came, and the town fell to the Serbs within five days. Schindler amply proves that Bosnian Army signals intelligence had advance warning of a Serb offensive, and did nothing, and that even when armed Bosnian soldiers taking with them civilians (and not the simple unarmed masses that the Western media tacitly alleges) tried to contact their kin, no help came. Shockingly, on the morning the town fell to the Serbs, “there was a meeting of the [SDA] party leadership and the top officers of the General Staff in Sarajevo; the enclave wasn’t on the agenda.”

Suspicions that the ever-cynical Izetbegovic was hoping to expedite a massacre of his own people by removing his top general from the field seem confirmed by a statement the Bosnian president made. Schindler cites a news report which quotes him as having said that “in April 1993, President Clinton told me that if the Chetniks [Serbs] enter Srebrenica and massacre five thousand Muslims, there will be military intervention” (p. 234). Indeed there was. Srebrenica motivated the West to end the military war, on Muslim terms, and to ensure that the propaganda war for the remembrance of that conflict would be theirs and theirs alone, ad infinitum. Phony and deceitfully comparisons of the plight of Jews in the Second World War with that of Bosnian Muslims today have been institutionalized to the extent that anyone who does not agree, or who calls for a more objective and fact-oriented investigation, is denounced immediately as a “Holocaust denier.” As Schindler mentions, the simple utterance of the word “Srebrenica’ is a “conversation stopper” amongst polite society today.

After the War, the War

Schindler’s final two chapters go on to discuss in detail the extent to which the Bosnian War metastasized into a global jihad- the enduring legacy of that conflict for world security today. For those interested more in current events than in the intricacies of the Bosnian War, they will come as the most useful sections of the book. The first extraordinary event, which took place back in Bosnia, occurred in mid-1995 when the CIA station chief had to be hurriedly evacuated from Sarajevo almost as soon as he had arrived, because the Iranians intended to kidnap, torture and kill him. He soon learned that his identity had been compromised by “one of the Bosnian Muslims who worked for the U.S. Embassy [who] was a spy for the Muslim secret police,” which was controlled by Iran.

The officer attributed his betrayal by Bosnian Muslim secret service “colleague” Nedzad Ugljen ultimately to “the totality of our misguided policies” in Bosnia (p. 241). While the new NATO mission quickly moved to dismantle Iranian training camps, starting with the February 15, 1996 raid on the camp at Pogorelica near Sarajevo. While the SDA government pledged to rid itself of any Iranian elements, they were apparently still well enough entrenched to plot sophisticated attacks against Americans in Bosnia four years later (p. 243). In 1998, Schindler records, at least 200 Iranian agents were still active, and “had penetrated everything worthwhile in Sarajevo, including Train and Equip,” the American post-war military reform program for the Bosnian Army.

At the same time, post-Dayton Bosnia saw the SDA consolidate its grip, a further removal of the Christian minorities from Muslim-controlled Bosnia, and a purge of many moderates in the Islamic community administration. At the same time, the Saudi and other Islamic charities that had arrived because of the war continued their work in radicalizing and indoctrinating the first generation of young Muslims- something that had been the goal of the SDA inner circle all along, and which materialized most forcefully in the creation of the Active Islamic Youth radical NGO (p. 257). Further, despite Western demands that the hundreds of former foreign mujahedin leave, Izetbegovic stalled, resettling many in Taliban-style villages run by Sharia law.

After the war, a handful of Bosnian fighters began turning up in places of perceived jihad like Chechnya and Kosovo, among other places. In the book’s final chapter, “Europe’s Afghanistan,” Schindler’s careful reconstruction of the links between Bosnia and 9/11, and the police’s rich haul of terrorist-related information from Bosnian charities following the attacks, is especially compelling. Pointedly, the author goes on to show that in executing the (supposedly) complete purges of radical Islamists from Bosnian law enforcement after 9/11, the West hardly received the support of wartime SDA elements in rooting out criminal and terrorist-connected individuals: indeed, colonial caretaker Paddy Ashdown succumbed to the pressure of the opposition in October 2002, when he fired Munir Alibabic, the reforming head of the security services and an old nemesis of the SDA.

Appointed by the then-ruling Social Democrats, Alibabic “horrified” the SDA with his plan to “root out the party-based crime and corruption that allowed radicalism and terrorism to flourish in Bosnia.” His report on the SDA’s extensive links to organized crime was a step too far (p. 290). And Ashdown himself confounded many local reformers by openly championing the SDA, voicing platitudes about it, and even its party newspaper; the sponsors of al Qaeda in the Balkans were back in power by the end of 2002. Meanwhile, the drive to dismantle the terrorists’ network, motivated originally by “serious but short-lived” American efforts after 9/11, had “run out of steam” (p. 291).

Schindler goes on to document other post-9/11 attacks and planned attacks in Bosnia itself, such as the failed one on the US Embassy in Sarajevo in March 2002 and on other Western targets there in November 2005, and thwarted plots planned within Bosnia, such as the failed attack on Pope John Paul II’s funeral in April 2005. Further abroad, events like the kidnap and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the 2004 Madrid bombings, among others, attested that “as al-Qaedaattacks multiplied across the world, a disturbing number of terrorists involved had [been found to have] close ties to Bosnia and the holy war aged there” (p. 296). Most intriguingly, Schindler gives intimate details of little-known investigations in countries everywhere from Malaysia and Thailand to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen to reaffirm the enduring legacy of the Bosnian jihad, which globalized the Islamic holy war.

Nevertheless, he concludes, the West continues to look the other way, denying or underestimating the seriousness of the problem projected by radical members of the minority Wahhabi population of Bosnia, and Bosnia-linked extremists abroad. In the end, while late Yugoslav Bosnia was “probably the most Western-oriented component of the umma,” Schindler argues, “a tiny coterie of individuals who masked their actual agenda” were able to expedite “an unpleasant and destabilizing war which destroyed decades of socioeconomic progress and opened the door to increased radicalization and the entry of al-Qa’ida and related mujahedin groups into Europe- the lesson of Bosnia is that it happened” (p. 324).


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Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (1)

Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad

By John R. Schindler

Zenith Press (2007), 368 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Note: Owing to length, the following review is being published in two parts.

Part one, which follows below, appears on March 22, 2008. Part two will appear on March 29, 2008.

Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad is by far the most significant and insightful book yet written about the presence of foreign mujahedin in Bosnia during the 1990s, and the role they and their sponsors played in globalizing the jihad that had been created during the Soviet-Afghan conflict, which was winding down just as Bosnia was on the verge of civil war.

The pre-eminent position of this work on the Bosnia bookshelf owes both to the comprehensive and balanced treatment of events presented therein, and also to the fact that the author, John Schindler, was formerly the National Security Agency’s Balkan expert analyst. This fact has undoubtedly caused many people to be very nervous about what the author, now Professor of Strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Newport, Rhode Island, has to say.

And well they should. For unquestioning supporters of the former Izetbegovic government in the West, the darker side of that government and its connections to global terrorism, organized crime and human rights abuses against fellow Bosnians makes for chilling reading. To be fair, many were fooled by Izetbegovic and his SDA party’s rhetoric of human rights and democracy, but many others, especially Western leaders, were in a position to know the truth.

Nevertheless, they unfailingly supported, to the point of military intervention, an individual who was personally collaborating with Osama bin Laden, an individual whose vision for a future Bosnia was radically different from that supported by the West. The result of this suicidal policy would manifest itself most vividly on 9/11, but also in many other terrorist attacks and attempted attacks around the world. Today, though it seldom makes the news, Western security agencies still have their hands full dealing with the terrorist and extremist networks strengthened and developed — this time, on Western soil — by the Bosnian jihad.

Some Caveats

Schindler begins by summarizing his book as both “a challenge and corrective” to the existing record on Bosnia, noting that his findings will be to some “revealing, to others heretical, to others dangerous” (p. 7). Indeed, the author pulls no punches in describing how specific parties, most of all the late Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and his inner cadre, were directly responsible for bringing the jihad to Europe, using all means at their disposal, including a highly successful public relations campaign that concealed their real long-term goal — an Islamic state in Europe — behind a facade of devotion to democracy and a multi-ethnic Bosnia. However, says Schindler, for wartime Western journalists in the grips of “groupthink,” the “Islamic role of Sarajevo’s government was the great unmentionable” (p. 8).

Nevertheless, the author unabashedly relates that before joining the NSA, he had fervently believed the Bosnian official propaganda, adding that deep down he had “wanted Sarajevo’s version of the truth to be reality.” However, after joining America’s most secretive spy organization, and gaining access to a treasure trove of intelligence documents, Schindler discovered that “it turned out that pretty much everything I thought I knew was simply wrong — or worse, a hazardous half-truth” (p. 11).

Despite this intimate knowledge, the author takes care to make some disclaimers. The first is that the book “is not an insider’s exposˆšÃ‰Â¬Â© of the shortcomings and failures of the U.S. government though there is ample evidence herein that demonstrates how short-sighted and ultimately destructive much American policy in the Balkans was” (p. 11).

The second is that the book does not divulge precious secret documents: “the reader will search in vain for leaked documents or purloined secrets in these pages,” he says in the introduction. In the end, is remarkable that Schindler was able to do such a thorough job in telling the story, even without recourse to such files. However, he states his confidence that in the end his book “will be confirmed and amplified” when the US government someday declassifies its “impressively full archive of intelligence about the Bosnian war and the Balkan jihad” (p. 11).


The ten chapters of Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad chart a roughly chronological, though overlapping course from the history of Bosnia in Ottoman times to the ongoing aftershocks of the Bosnian jihad, in the form of recent terrorist plots and attacks in far corners of the world. Although very dense and packed with an array of data, Unholy War becomes, after a relatively slow initial chapter, a real page-turner that never loses its essential focus and sense of urgency.

Chapter one is a historical overview of the development of Islam from Ottoman times to the modern day. It is a useful account that overturns modern views of the Ottoman treatment of Christians, and which places the wars of the 1990s in their proper historical context, in other words, showing the contrasting views that the various peoples of Bosnia had about the past, and how these views shaped their fears and hopes for the future.

The second and third chapters present a brief, but necessary departure into the role of the media and propaganda in fueling and prolonging the war in Bosnia, and about how well the Izetbegovic government was able to conceal its tacit goal of forming a Muslim state. It is as good an account as any about this key element of the war, and thus comes as a bonus feature in a book otherwise occupied with the military and intelligence aspects of the war. The end of the third chapter also provides interesting details on the Clinton administration’s often misunderstood role in the crisis.

The fourth and fifth chapters take a closer look at the arrival of foreign mujahedin, and the foreign powers that facilitated their presence, with the sixth chapter providing especially interesting data on the role of the United States. After chronicling the role of the Muslim government and mujahedin in the war, through its end in 1995, the remaining chapters go on to give a fantastic array of details on the intimate connections of Bosnia’s ruling party with organized crime and international terrorism- with the final chapter providing a good round up of known (and lesser-known) terrorist arrests and incidents that occurred following the war, with a direct link to Bosnia.

Unlike other authors who seem determined to retain the image of the entirely “Good Muslims” of Bosnia despite uncomfortable facts indicating a radical element within the country, Schindler maintains that the inroads religious extremists made during the 1990s is bearing fruit still, in the form of radicalized mosques, preachers, organizations and publications, all targeting a small but young and voluble Muslim population in Bosnia.

Inside the “Multicultural’ Ottoman Empire

Schindler’s opening chapter provides a brief history of the role of Islam up until the breakdown of Yugoslavia. He contends that an awareness of this history is necessary for an understanding of why Christian Serbs and Croatians were so concerned with the vision for Bosnia espoused by Alija Izetbegovic and his inner circle in the SDA party. Contrary to what revisionist historians have argued, life was not exactly a party for non-Muslims in the empire, and fear of returning to such a status of servitude played a strong, yet largely unreported role in motivating the wars of the 1990s, in which the Serbs and Croats of Bosnia considered themselves to be undertaking a broadly defensive campaign, not an offensive one as is often alleged.

Following failed incursions in the late 14th century, the expansionist Ottoman Empire finally succeeded in subjugating Christian Bosnia in 1463. As classic jihadis, the Ottomans divided the world into two spheres: the House of Islam (Dar-al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar-al-Harb). While monotheists like Christians and Jews were technically classed under the latter, “they were in no sense a protected minority…  under Ottoman rule [they] were not citizens and had no rights as modern Westerners understand the term” (p. 21). In this light, it was not hard to understand why conversion to Islam became a popular option.

Making up a class of subjects known as the dhimmi, Christians and Jews paid considerable taxes, and had “to wear proof of payment, a parchment or seal on their person, on pain of death, an obvious public stigma” (p. 22). “Lifelong humiliation” marked their existence, and the dhimmi were not allowed to testify against Muslims in court, leaving the latter free to commit crimes against them.

Other degrading restrictions included having to dismount from one’s horse whenever a Muslim passed by, and a prohibition on building houses or churches larger than Muslims.’ Intermarriage was allowed only in the case of a Muslim man and non-Muslim woman. Most resented of all was the devshirme, or “blood tax” which Ottoman sultans imposed to replenish their corps of elite converted Christian warriors, the janissaries.

“At a fixed date, every father had to gather his sons in the main square of the local village and allow the authorities to select the best to be sent away, in most cases never to be seen again; resistance brought instant death, and some fathers disfigured sons to prevent their enslavement” (p. 23).

Nevertheless, more forgiving modern scholars have regarded this practice, which went on in Bosnia for three centuries following the conquest, “not as child kidnapping but as a sort of Ottoman affirmative action program to assist non-Muslims, including discussions of its “benefits’ for Bosnia, and for the person who supposedly wanted their sons to get into the program” (pp. 23-24). While Schindler admits that there was the rare example of a janissary elevated to a high position, who then helped his home area from afar, “this was the exception that proved the rule.” (Although not mentioned in the book, it is also important to note the Ottoman practice of child slavery did not end due to the development of more enlightened rule, but because over time the janissary corps became too powerful, an internal security threat that had to be purged).

The rub was that in Bosnia, more so than in other parts of the empire, strategic geography made the social role of Islam more ferocious. Contrary to today’s “Western apologists,’ states Schindler, Bosnian Islam “was considered unusually harsh from the outset, as it faced Christian Europe, in the guise of Habsburg Croatia, on its northern border and lived in fear of losing its precarious status on the extended Ottoman frontier” (p. 24).

Continuity and Change: The Habsburgs, War and the First Yugoslavia

By the 19th century, when the empire was in terminal decline, more Western-friendly voices within called for reforms- which “were met with fierce resistance” from Bosnian Muslims; “jealously guarding their privileged socioeconomic status,” they “proved willing to resist reform with force.” In fact, for exactly the opposite reasons as in Christian provinces of the empire, Bosnian Muslims staged rebellions throughout the 19th century specifically to maintain their privileged status over the allegedly inferior non-Muslim populations, whose shoddy treatment led them to revolt as well.

Mutual hatreds increased throughout the century. Schindler quotes a British diplomat in Sarajevo as saying, in 1860, that Christian hatred of Muslims was intense and motivated by the “oppression and cruelty” they had experienced for centuries. “For them no other law than the caprice of their masters existed.” Despite attempts at reform, ingrained and systemic resistance on the local level meant that the lot of Christians was generally not improved (p. 26).

Following massacres of Christians from 1875-1877, and the Russo-Turkish War in Bulgaria that resulted in the Treaty of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarians invaded Bosnia. Their action “met with fierce resistance” from Muslims, who feared losing their privileges; however, time would show the Habsburgs to be timid rulers, their desire to preserve “stability on the Balkan frontier” and avoid Muslim revolts leading them to keep intact repressive laws: “the colonial authorities never challenged Islam’s place in Bosnia’s social, economic and political life.”

Ironically, the Austro-Hungarian colonial rulers “actually strengthened Islam by establishing the Reis ul-ulema as the chief cleric for Bosnia in 1882, selecting the mufti of Sarajevo as the first to hold the powerful post… Habsburg bureaucrats built large numbers of religious schools and buildings for Muslims, and even constructed government buildings in the Moorish style (pp. 27-28). Incredibly, under the Habsburgs Islamic education actually became a requirement for Muslims.

However, it was, according to Schindler, the general improvements and expansion of education enacted by the colonial power that proved its undoing; the “creation of a new literate class,” aided the development of anti-Habsburg thinking. However, whereas Bosnia’s Christians were easily able to define themselves as Serbs and Croats, the Muslims “had no nationality in the modern sense. Their Islamic universalist worldview was shattered by the Ottoman collapse, leaving a void.” Many educated Muslims thus “found the ideology of Pan-Islamism attractive, seeing it as an alternative to Western ideologies” (p. 28).

Nevertheless, with the arrival of World War I, Bosnian Muslims were by and large enthusiastic to join the Austro-Hungarians in fighting the hated Serbs, and “Bosnian units, staffed disproportionately by Muslims, proved to be the most reliable element in the Austro-Hungarian military.” A Habsburg attempt to round up suspected Serbian spies in the midst relied heavily on the mostly Muslim Schutzkorps, which was especially efficient at rounding up enemies “real or imagined” (p. 29).

With the end of the war, revenge attacks from Christians occurred, but the rule of newly created Royalist Yugoslavia “turned out to be less harsh and vindictive than Muslims had expected… Belgrade, like Vienna before it, turned out to be mainly interested in stability, and had no desire to cause turmoil by inflaming Muslims passions” (p. 30). Yet with the development of “an overcentralized and corrupt bureaucracy” favoring Serbs from Serbia proper, resentment increased among Muslims, Croats and even Bosnian Serbs; Muslims adopted an “accommodation strategy,” Schindler argues, one which they “would practice for decades to come, as the best way to serve Muslim interests and defend their rights” (p. 30).

Post-Ottoman Islam in Bosnia

Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad continues with the author’s succinct tracing of the development of the modern Islamic movement in Bosnia. He demonstrates that there is clear continuity, for anyone who wishes to see, between the religious values and ideals of Ottoman times and the ambitions of modern Bosnian leaders. Further, key events of the 1920’s and 1930’s elsewhere in the Islamic world would be perceived as an exact blueprint for Bosnia some 60 years later.

This continuity involved the exposure of young Bosnian zealots to the wider Islamic world and developments there. Bosnian students frequently studied abroad; “particularly influential were those who had studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the leading Islamic university.” Here in Egypt, another former Ottoman possession, the post-war generation would be profoundly influenced by the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) by Hassan al-Banna, a young student opposed to perceived Western decadence taking root in his homeland. The Brotherhood was a secret society “dedicated to establishing a Pan-Islamist government, a restored caliphate, based on the Koran and shari’a. It advocated the rule of Islam over the individual, the family, society, and the state” (pp. 31-32). The Muslim Brotherhood sought to infiltrate the civil and military administrations with sympathizers to the Islamist cause, and unleashed terrorist and paramilitary attacks on officials it opposed.

By the late 1930’s, admiration for the Brotherhood had spread far and wide, and in Bosnia its methods and goals were “essentially copied” by a group of mostly teenage radicals, who in March 1941 formed their own society, the Young Muslims (Mladi Muslimani), “on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.” The “practical achievement of Islam” was their political ambition, and they opposed not only non-Muslim authorities but also local Muslim ones, whom they viewed as “stodgy at best [and] corrupt at worst” (p. 32).

In 1943, the Young Muslims, “collaborators with the Nazis from the beginning of Bosnia’s occupation,” would encourage their religious kin to join the Waffen-SS Handschar division to fight for the Nazis against the Serbs. While the war was raging, Young Muslims such as Nedzib Sacirbegovic and Alija Izetbegovic (who would be forced unwillingly into Partisan uniforms the next year) were agitating against things like Western films that they perceived as being un-Islamic (p. 36). With the new Communist rule following the war, they continued subversive publications, and both men served brief jail terms starting in 1946.

However, despite initial restrictions, Islam in Communist Yugoslav Bosnia became more welcoming in the 1960s, by which time the Young Muslims had long resumed their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, “via secret meetings in several countries,” guaranteeing a flow of “contraband Islamic literature” into Bosnia (p. 40). As Schindler aptly notes, the ameliorated relationship between the state and Islam also was due to Tito’s newfound prominence as head of the Non-Aligned Movement, which involved keeping good relations with numerous Muslim countries. Remarkably, markers of Islam actually increased under the Communists, with 800 new mosques being built in Bosnia between 1950 and 1970- meaning that there were “more houses of worship and imams in 1970 than there had been before the Communists came to power” (p. 41).

Nevertheless, the Young Muslims were not satisfied with either the Communists or the state-friendly Islamic leadership they allowed, and led by Izetbegovic they continued to bide their time and plot in the shadows for a future Islamic state. Despite the development of an irreligious intelligentsia, “in nonurban parts of the country Islam retained much of its traditional hold on the population” (p. 42). Plus, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were able to gain access to Europe through studying in Yugoslavia. One of the most fateful arrivals for the future would be that of Fatih al-Hasanayn from Sudan in 1964; this medical student would became a close ally of Izetbegovic’s over the next two decades, and a major organizer of foreign funding for the Bosnian war effort in the 1990s.

Izetbegovic himself drew inspiration not only from the Muslim Brotherhood, but also from Pakistan (the model of an ideal state in his famous manifesto, The Islamic Declaration) and revolutionary Iran. The victory of the ayatollahs in 1979 captivated Bosnian Muslim Islamists: in 1982, Izetbegovic and longtime associate Omar Behmen established contact with Tehran through the Iranian Embassy in Vienna.

However, the Yugoslav security services soon discovered this channel and its purpose, and in March 1983 Izetbegovic and his colleagues were arrested and put on trial, a venue which gave him an ideal opportunity to present himself as a dignified and unfairly accused political dissident. Although in the trial he attested that “Islamic society without an Islamic government is incomplete and impotent,” the experience did win Izetbegovic support from critics of Communism who did not see his specific worldview as a possible future threat. Nevertheless, Izetbegovic was sentenced to 14 years in jail, Behmen to 15 years, and 10 for “the only youthful member of the group,” 27 year-old radical cleric Hasan Cengic, who would become an instrumental figure in the war effort.

The remainder of Schindler’s first chapter chronicles the fast-developing events leading to the destruction of Yugoslavia, the most important of which in Bosnia was the rise of the SDA (Stranke demokratske akcije, Party of Democratic Action); “what it represented, what it stood for, was an enigma from the start, and has remained so, precisely as [party leader] Izetbegovic wished it to be” (p. 47). This theme of Izetbegovic as the inscrutable and enigmatic politician who would often voice contradictory positions and bewilder even his close allies is one of the author’s major ones, which appears throughout the book and which is cited as part of the reason why the crafty old former Young Muslim would be able to essentially fool the West throughout his long tenure about the depth of his party’s devotion to Pan-Islamism, not to mention its major involvement in organized crime and with the world’s most wanted terrorists.

The importance of the author’s initial historical approach to the modern conflicts is amplified when he discusses the reconciliation of newfound political pluralism with Izetbegovic’s “Ottomanophilia,” that is, his desire to return Bosnia’s non-Muslims to their dhimmi status; in the SDA leader’s own words, a revived caliphate was “the practical conclusions taken from the Islamic recognition of Christians and Jews which comes straight from the Koran” (p. 49). Bosnia’s Croats and Serbs were understandably horrified by such rhetoric. In a refreshingly frank approximation that thanks to the media was not heard back when it might have influenced Western policies, Schindler notes:

“in American terms, this would be tantamount to a white Southern politician who publicly extolled his slave-owning ancestors while running for office on a platform calling for a return to antebellum values and practices. The opinions of African-Americans in such a scenario would be easy to predict, and rather like how non-Muslims in Bosnia viewed the rise of Izetbegovic” (p. 49).

However, not even most Bosnian Muslims wanted such a society, and the ability of the SDA zealots to muscle their way into power, eliminate all opposition, and chart a decidedly anti-Western course for Bosnia is one of the most remarkable aspects of the Yugoslav Wars, according to the author. Even though the SDA had strong support among the rural Muslim communities which had more than urban populations retained their traditional Ottoman ways, and even though it took a majority of the Muslim vote in the November 1990 election, it received less cumulative votes than did the popular and secular Muslim politician, Fikret Abdic. However, “in a background deal that has never been explained” writes Schindler, “the victor stepped aside and permitted Izetbegovic to assume the Bosnian presidency, setting the stage for tragedy” (p. 53).


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The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914

The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914
By John D. Treadway

Purdue University Press (1983), 349 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

In the preface to this helpful study of Montenegrin diplomacy in the pre-WWI era, author John D. Treadway cites Greek-Canadian historian L.S. Stavrianos: “the role of Montenegro in South Slav and general Balkan affairs was quote out of proportion to her ridiculously meager material resources.”

Indeed, the author’s primary goal in The Falcon and Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 is to document, for the first time in a generalist scholarly English work, just how significant Montenegro really was, both through its own active diplomacy and in its existence as an apple of discord among larger European powers, in the turbulent series of events that led up to the apocalypse of world war in 1914.

Published as it was back in 1983, Treadway’s work can no longer be considered the most recent or most comprehensive of studies on pre-war Montenegrin history. However, it is a readable modern study that, despite some tired figures of speech and cliches in the style, maintains a steady narrative and sheds light on the motivations and mindsets of some of the leading figures, most notably Montenegrin Prince (and subsequently King) Nikola Petrovic and Austro-Hungarian Minster of Foreign Affairs Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal.


The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 is one of those old-school political histories in which diplomatic entreaties and subterfuge are considered, without much self-critical awareness, the primary shapers of History on a grand stage. Although somewhat abandoned now in favor of more inter-disciplinary and atomizing methodologies, this formula used by Treadway works well in the case of turn-of-the-century Montenegro, a tiny principality that at the time was even lacking half of its current coastline.

Chronically poor, composed largely of rocky mountains and non-arable land, Montenegro was severely economically challenged, not to mention surrounded by difficult neighbors, such as the avaricious Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north and fierce Albanian tribesmen to the south. Even if it hadn’t been part of the country’s cultural heritage, a little Byzantine diplomacy would seem to go a long way in the case of a small Balkan state that had very little defenses. Fortunately, there was plenty of that in stock in a country that had little else.

The author does a good job of explaining the methods and motivations of crafty Prince Nikola, Montenegro’s long-lived ruler and father-in-law of the Serbian King Petar Karadjordjevic. Constantly engaged in a studied, and rather insincere set of appeals designed to win over the rulers of Russia, Austro-Hungary, Italy and other European powers, Prince Nikola used all the weapons in his arsenal- an especially useful one was the classic Byzantine method of alliance through arranged marriages. By wedding his numerous children into the royal families of various states, Nikola attempted to build sympathy and open windows of influence for his tiny state in Europe. And indeed, he was surprisingly successful in doing so, despite the perceived unimportance of his principality.

However, as the author makes clear in his detailed narrative, the fortunes of Montenegro and its mercurial ruler were entirely bound up with the larger questions of Great Power rivalry in the increasingly high-stakes world of the post-Treaty of Berlin Balkans. In this respect, Montenegro’s main card was its strategic location on the Adriatic, and just south of the Austro-Hungarian border and just north of the volatile Ottoman one.

As the author explains through a very detailed discussion of events, everything that happened in and around Montenegro was part of larger calculated plans and hypotheses by which the Great Powers tried to get the better of one another or push for advantage. Montenegro was often able to exploit these conflicting desires. However, in consistently raising the level of tension almost to the point of war — something that would have appeared reckless in a larger country having more to lose — Montenegro’s leaders exhibited cunning, daring and a certain kind of mad courage that more than once allowed them to successfully bluff their way out of dangerous situations.

The structure of The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 broadly supports its style and methodology, that is, it sticks to a simple chronological accounting of events. This makes it an ideal read for general-interest fans of the Balkans, though many of the events and episodes it recounts are sufficiently obscure that the book will no doubt have something to offer to the more advanced student as well.

The Narrative and its Topics

After a first chapter which sets the scene for the unfolding narrative with a sketch of Montenegro’s social structure and political leadership in the centuries leading up to the 20th, and which outlines the prevailing dynamic of bilateral relations between Montenegro and Austro-Hungary, Russia and other states, the second chapter starts off with the “Annexation Crisis’ of 1908- referring to the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia in October, thee months after the Young Turk revolution dramatically changed the footing of the declining Ottoman Empire. As the author makes clear, Vienna’s dubious decision dramatically raised the political temperature in Europe and brought the whole tangled Balkan question to the fore. The third chapter continues to discuss the annexation’s fallout (in 1909), and the “capitulations” of Serbia and Montenegro to the Hapsburgs’ bold power play.

The fourth and fifth chapters continue to discuss a conspiracy against Prince Nikola (the “Kolasin Conspiracy’), the monarch’s golden jubilee and official crowning as “king’, and the ambivalent role of Montenegro as both protector and persecutor of Albanian militants from the Malissori tribe just across the border, who in 1910 and 1911 rebelled against weak Ottoman rule.

By following the twists and turns of Balkan diplomacy, as it resonated from Cetinje (then the capital of Montenegro) through the halls of power in Europe, the author does a good job in chapter six of showing how far-off events, such as the Italian-Turkish war in Tripoli in 1911, impacted on Montenegro and enhanced its strategic significance. The “road to war’ is also vividly described from a diplomatic point of view in this chapter, which gives an account of the secret dealings — including King Nikola’s masterful visit to Vienna, ostensibly to visit Austrian officials, but really to cement an understanding with Bulgaria regarding Montenegrin participation in the Balkan alliance that would declare war on the Turks in the fall of 1912.

The final chapters of The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914 are devoted to the Balkan Wars up to the outbreak of WWI, and especially Montenegro’s role throughout. The issue of most acute sensitivity was its desire to claim more territory on the Adriatic, and particularly the lake town of Scutari (Shkoder) in northern Albania. The siege, and then brief occupation of this town by Montenegrin forces, incredibly enough almost led to a wider war; the insolence of the upstart regime of King Nikola in standing down the might of the Austro-Hungarians represents one of the defining moments of Montenegrin participation in the conflict.

Other Observations

One of the benefits of Treadway’s details-rich account is that it tends to reduce the tendency to view the various combatants and interests involved in monolithic terms. The author makes a point of refuting certain previous historians’ opinions that dictate Germany was spoiling for war from behind the scenes, and that the Hapsburgs’ boorish behavior can be largely attributed to the Germans. And he certainly does make a strong case for Montenegro having played a much more important role in issues of war and peace in Europe than has been previously thought.

In fact, by following the action through the personal meetings of diplomats and international conferences, the author portrays a confusing atmosphere of simmering conflict in which voices of moderation and negotiation prevailed often, and in which the specific personalities of those involved molded the course of events.

In this respect, this careful balancing of the national, individual and partisan ambitions and goals of Montenegro, the European Great Powers and other Balkan states is perhaps the most commendable thing about The Falcon and the Eagle: Montenegro and Austria-Hungary, 1908-1914. While necessarily incomplete in regards to the wider European picture, this saga of a small nation’s struggle to champion its cause in an era of sudden and irreversible change does an admirable job of presenting a fully fleshed-out chronology of the events and diplomatic exchanges that dominated the heady final days of the independent Montenegrin principality and the dawning of a new era.

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